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Will Move Meeting House One Important Step Closer To All-Access Use

October 17, 2008


    Will Move Meeting House One Important Step Closer To All-Access Use

    By Shannon Hicks

    There is no disputing that Newtown Meeting House is a gem of a building. A classic New England church built in 1792, the building at 31 Main Street provides the perfect location and setting for nondenominational, interfaith religious or civil ceremonies, vow renewals, civil unions, and commitment ceremonies. It has also hosted countless memorial services, concerts and lectures in its 215-plus years of existence.

    The building has long been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and received an official citation for historic preservation excellence from the Connecticut General Assembly in 1991 following extensive interior and exterior renovations two years earlier that remained true to its original architecture.

    Unfortunately for all its beauty and history, there is a group of people who cannot access the meeting house because of its entryways. The building is not easy to enter for those with walking issues, and next to impossible for anyone in a wheelchair. The front steps do not have a railing, and the steps that go from the foyer to the main area (the former sanctuary) are narrow and difficult to negotiate.

    “The steps are awkward to operate whether you have good or bad knees,” admits Meeting House Events Organizer Sherry Paisley. “They were built in 1792 when people were much smaller. The railing is also very awkward.”

    With that in mind, local musician and vocal instructor Pamela Hoffmann decided to get back to fundraising work. The Brookfield resident was one of the organizers of concerts a few years ago when the building was in desperate need of a new grand piano.

    “I think with as many things the meeting house has to offer, it’s time to address this issue,” said Ms Hoffman, whose students frequently offer their recitals in the historic building. The musician loves the acoustics of the building and its beauty, but is also being motivated by a personal friend who recently had trouble attending an event at the meeting house.

    “The main reason I wanted to do this was, a few years ago a friend of mine became paralyzed from the chest down. He was an active, wonderful person, who suddenly couldn’t do everything he used to do, including attending events right here [when his daughter performed],” Ms Hoffman said. “The seed was planted then in my head that this building should be shared by everyone. This country is far behind in bringing buildings up to code.”

    So Ms Hoffman went to work. She contacted three of her students, and invited them to perform during another fundraising concert, this time to build up the Heritage Preservation Handicapped Access Fund.

    On Sunday, November 9, at 2 pm, dramatic soprano (and Newtown resident) Gwynne Wittmann, mezzo soprano Ann Martindale, and lyric soprano Elizabeth Norton will be joined by concert pianist Margarita Nuller to present “Music for an Autumn Afternoon.”

    Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. Credit cards are welcome for advance ticket purchases; call 270-8293.

    The vocalists for November 9 are returning to a familiar setting. They were three of the four featured performers in a benefit concert in June 2007, and Ms Nuller was the pianist for that recital as well.

    “I love this space,” said Ms Nuller, who is also a piano instructor and often uses the meeting house for her students’ recitals.

    Proceeds from the November performance will be added to the Heritage Preservation Handicapped Access Fund, an account that was kick started in June 2007 when Newtown longtime resident Mary Mitchell gave made a gift of $5,000 to The Heritage Preservation Trust. The Trust is the 501(c)(3) organization responsible for the maintenance, preservation, and upkeep of the historic meeting house.

    Mrs Mitchell’s seed money was supplemented later that month when a concert, “Music For A Spring Afternoon,” was performed by Ms Nuller, Ms Norton, Ms Martindale, and Ms Wittmann, with the accompanist Susan Anthony Klein.

    “A lot of us have had the opportunity to perform and grow here,” Ms Norton said last week. “It’s a fabulous space, and we want to make it something that more people can enjoy.”

    “We already have the fund started [for handicapped access] thanks to Mary Mitchell, but there’s no stopping Pamela Hoffman when she gets her mind set on something,” Mrs Paisley said with a laugh. “Pamela got the ball rolling to get our piano funded a few years ago. That piano is here now thanks to her.”

    “This is a much bigger project, and even more important,” Ms Hoffman said.

    Recent additions and updates to the building – including air conditioning and the Yamaha concert grand piano – have made the meeting house fully equipped to comfortably host concerts by professional-level performers. And the building is no newcomer to having great music performed within its walls. In addition to the live wedding music performed year-round, the building regularly hosts traditional Irish music concerts presented by The Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, it welcomes recitals of students of all ages, and it is the performance space for Newtown Choral Society, among other groups.

    “You’re not required to make [an existing] building handicapped accessible,” Heritage Preservation Trust President Donald Studley told The Bee during the planning for last year’s benefit concert. “We’re a historic building, and so by law there isn’t a mandate that says we have to make these changes. It’s going to be a very expensive project, but it’s something we really want to do.

    “It was never an absolute requirement, but it’s been a desire,” he added.

    Renovations to the building’s lower level a few years ago made that space handicapped accessible, but substantial renovations to the upstairs interior were not done, nor was the issue of access for the handicapped addressed. Mr Studley said the need for handicapped access is something he and the other trustees know is a necessity, but they have not had the money for the needed work.

    One of the biggest challenges for the Trust is that not much that can be done about the building’s front entrance, so plans may have to create an entry at another point. The meeting house has a fire escape that might be renovated, or a brand-new entryway may have to be constructed from the back of the building.

    “I really think once we get this benefit over with, we’ll be able to get started,” Sherry Paisley said last week. “We will finally have the money we need to get started. The next step is to get the architect’s plan, to decide how exactly we are going to make changes to this building.”

    “Music for an Autumn Afternoon” will be performed at Newtown Meeting House on Sunday, November 9, at 2 pm. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door; call 270-8293 to charge tickets.

    For those who are unable to attend the concert but would like to support the fund, donations will be gratefully accepted by The Heritage Preservation Trust, 38 Walnut Tree Hill Road, Sandy Hook CT 06482.